Key drivers of a 21st century academic "revolution" are identified in a trend report produced for this week's UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education. The drivers are the massification of tertiary systems everywhere, the 'public good' versus 'private good' debate, the impacts of information and communications technology, and the rise of the knowledge economy and globalisation. All major changes in higher education stem in one way or another from these motivating forces, the report's authors say.
Trends in Global Higher Education: Tracking an academic revolution was written by Philip G Altbach, Liz Reisberg and Laura E Rumbley of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College in the US, with input from experts and external evaluation by Jane Knight, V Lynn Meek, Marcela Mollis and Mala Singh.
The report aims to highlight some of the most significant forces shaping higher education in the past decade - since the 1998 UNESCO World Conference on Higher Education - and to stimulation discussion at the 2009 world conference starting today in Paris.
Retracing higher education back to the 1998 UNESCO conference, and reviewing concerns and problems expressed at that meeting, reveals remarkable consistency over time. But while the authors note that many of the same challenges remain, in the past decade higher education has undergone "deep changes that will shape the academic enterprise for decades to come".
It is no exaggeration to talk of an academic "revolution" - a series of transformations that have influenced most aspects of post-secondary education and are more fundamental than in earlier decades because they are global, affect many more institutions and larger populations, write Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley.
The central reality of the past half century has been the massification of higher education. While some countries called for or achieved mass access in the first half of the 20th century, globally it is a quite recent phenomenon. And although some developing countries still have fewer than 10% of the post-school age group in higher education, almost all have dramatically increased their participation rates.
"The 'logic' of massification is inevitable and includes an overall lowering of academic standards, greater social mobility for a growing segment of the population, new patterns of funding higher education, increasingly diversified higher education systems in most countries and other tendencies," says the report.
Like other trends, massification is not new but is at the "deeper stage" of the higher education revolution and so must be considered in different ways. While initially systems struggled just to cope with demand, in the past decade they have begun to wrestle with the implications of diversity and to consider which sub-groups are still not being included and appropriately served.
Along with massification have come major changes to funding higher education. In most countries except some in East Asia, higher education has traditionally been considered a state responsibility and a 'public good' that benefits the individual but also society through enhanced productivity and contributing to national goals, among other things.
But financial pressures from massification and the neo-liberal orientation of international funding agencies in the last decade have emphasised higher education as a 'private good'. This has affected the allocation of responsibility for costs.
"It is becoming obvious that the state alone can no longer afford to educate the growing numbers of students in a mass higher education system and that (given the benefit of education to an individual over a lifetime) students and families need to assume a share of the financial burden. These factors have contributed to both the dramatic rise of private higher education worldwide and to the privatisation of public universities."
The role of higher education as a public good continues to be a fundamental goal and must be supported, argue Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley - "especially since this aspect of higher education is easily neglected in the rush for income and prestige".
Demographics is another driving force. Last year the OECD identified key demographic trends up until 2030 that appear to prevail globally in higher education, says the report. They are:
* Student participation and systems will continue to expand.
* Women will form the majority of student populations in most developed countries and their participation will increase everywhere.
* The student population will become more varied, including more international, older and part-time students.
* The social base in higher education will continue to broaden.
* Attitudes and policies relating to access will become more central to national debates.
* The academic profession will become more internationally oriented and more mobile but will remain structured according to national circumstances.
* Academic activities and roles will become more diversified and specialised, and subject to varied employment contracts.
* In developing countries, the need for more lecturers will mean that academic qualifications, already rather low, might not improve much and reliance on part-time staff will continue.
"Academic mobility is another hallmark of the global age. A truly global market for students and academic staff exists today," write Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley. They note there are more than 2.5 million international students, though no reliable statistics for academics teaching abroad.
ICTs are another global force and one of the most powerful influences on higher education: "The impact of technology on science and scholarship, teaching and learning in traditional universities, the possibilities for distance education, and even the internal management of universities has been particularly profound. Without doubt, deep inequalities persist with regard to ICT access, use and influence," the authors say.
A further central reality of the 21st century is the knowledge economy with manifestations - including the increasing importance of the service sector and ICTs - that enhance the salience of higher education.
"Growing segments of the workforce require the advanced education offered in post-secondary institutions," says the report. Research has also expanded in scope and relevance and the knowledge economy is enhancing the mobility of highly trained professionals.
Other powerful forces affecting higher education - and also related to each other - include instantaneous communication, the global dissemination of research and other information, use of English as the world's language for scientific communication, and expansion of ICTs.
"It may be possible to ameliorate the most negative aspects of globalisation but it is not practical to opt out of the global knowledge system," argue Altbach, Reisberg and Rumbley.
While globalisation is here to stay and higher education is increasingly affected by global trends, higher education remains essentially a national phenomenon and most institutions still function within national boundaries and serve local, regional and national interests.
"The multiple and diverse responsibilities of higher education are ultimately key to the well-being of modern society, but this expanded function adds considerable complexity and many new challenges," says the report. "Understanding these factors and the broader role of higher education in a globalised world is the first step to dealing constructively with the challenges that will inevitably loom on the horizon."
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